How do we get people to come out and how to we keep them coming back?
Has anyone ever attended a well-funded show that didn’t have much of an audience? Sure, it happens. We’ve watched them. We’ve even produced them. When I see those events, I can’t help but ask: How is this possible? Because I don’t know any arts professional that doesn’t believe in their core that the work they’re doing is important to people.
Now, I’ve noticed that small companies that don’t have the same access to major grants cannot help but stay in tune to their fans 365 days a year – because that engagement is in itself a type of currency. So it makes me question whether our concept of success gets somewhat muddied as we grow in organizational capacity.
We can make the grant deadline but we seem to easily miss out on other important dates, like marketing and outreach commitments, potentially due to the departmental silos and the linear working approach that seems to happen when staff gets bigger. For instance, it may be typical for an artistic team to hole up in development for many months before finally handing off the project to the marketing team around the time the ticket links would go live, then saying, “The art is complete. Now, make sure it sells.” The expectation is for the people who can be most articulate about the art to say little to the public and for the people who know the work the least intimately to do all the talking. I think that’s little bit backwards. I believe effective marketing begins with programming itself, and that strong artist involvement is key to properly advocating for any show. Let’s erase the boundaries and flip the model so to speak.
So, what can we do to create more unification in our teams and to retain our amateur intelligence (that sense of fun, connectivity, and daring) that we had when we had nothing?
I’d like to offer one case study that I had the good fortune to witness and participate in last year at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. Sean San Jose, director of theatre ensemble, Campo Santo, was putting on a performance dedicated to the art of graffiti. Rather than anyone going it alone, the first thing Sean did was invite dialogue and an all-out brainstorm between department leaders, including: the Program Director for Visual Arts, the Program Director for Community Engagement, and the Director of Communications at the time, me. There was pressure for this show to succeed and naturally, we did what anyone would do. We first went to the numbers. How can we set up the space, how many seats can we put in the house, how many nights of performances do we need to have? All good questions, however, all still working within the confines of the box – both figuratively and literally. Most importantly, it lacked any talk of our patrons outside of dollar amount.
Finally, this suggestion sprang to life. Rather than bringing graffiti to the theater space, why not bring the theater to the graffiti space? We ordered a party bus. We had over 30 performers, 3 bus tours, and only one night to make it all happen. Now, because we elevated the level of patron anticipation, we were able to raise theatre ticket prices to a new height in the entire history of the organization, as well as launch a successful Kickstarter campaign beforehand, accumulating several thousand dollars for the project. We took people through the Tenderloin and through Sixth Street, neighborhoods that might otherwise be labeled depressed or dangerous. Actors, dancers, and emcees jumped on and off the bus at various locations, delivering bursts of song and dialogue. While one of SF’s better known graffiti artists sat near the driver, microphone in hand, and in between sketches, gave a real-time / real-place docent tour of the hood, shared stories behind the murals he’d created, and gave more humanness and dignity to the residents of these alleyways and street corners. Needless to say, it sold out and did really well, and didn’t incur any great additional costs either.
More valuable than the ticketing success, however, we gave our patrons a chance to take in a visceral multisensory experience for the price of admission, something I know would NOT have been imaginable had we stayed in our minds “in the box.” And I believe this was only made possible because of the tearing down of partitions, combined with a high level of trust in team chemistry and a free flow of wild ideas.
Ultimately, the question I want to leave you with is this: What magic can possibly happen in the realm of community engagement and audience development if we were to look at the money we hope to earn not as a goal but as a result of having recommitted to our already very exciting and intrepid company missions?
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